It's a truism that the Second World War, the "good war", possessed none of the discomfiting ironies of the first Great War. While heroism led more effortlessly to the defeat of evil, this heroism was really more collective than individual. Beneath the victory of "free" nations over tyranny was still the single person, the small soldier or pilot, who wrenched himself in his late teens or early twenties from his family. If he died, it was usually as squalidly as any First World War trench warrior. Left behind were parents and siblings with only a silver-framed photo of a dead son or brother in uniform. This would sit sadly for many years on a living room mantelpiece or piano top, raising many agonizing questions. Was the soldier's death useful? Did it really add to the victory? The finality of the death itself, of course, never provided any convincing answers. Survivors were mostly left with a fathomless sense of loss and inadequacy. In the end, the two world wars-and many Canadian families knew both-offered the same pain.
In his new novella, You Went Away, Timothy Findley once more enters this territory of family and wars which has taken up a significant proportion of his previous writing, including The Wars and the stories "Wars" and "Stones". Running together in an integrated cycle of failed heroism and love in which adults are often ruined and children damaged, these works belong to "the ever-present war that began with the Boers in 1899 and ran its course until 1945-empires ending, others ascending."
A restless stylist, Findley has taken a different tack with each work. At one extreme, in The Wars, he makes full use of the nightmarish atmosphere of the killing fields of Flanders. Both at home and in Europe, the protagonist, Robert Ross, exists in milieux of aristocratic eccentricity and obsession. In You Went Away, Findley has turned The Wars inside out. All the characters are very ordinary people caught up in the early years of the Second World War. Though many are obsessed with conventional notions of heroism, no-one ever gets near a battlefield. The novel takes place entirely in Ontario, on the "home front", in downtown Toronto and on or near a couple of air bases. While an ace, Red Wilson, flies in grandly once in a sparkling Spitfire, the real planes are nothing more than risible Harvard trainers. In the officers' mess and the boarding houses of wives and children, the battles are painfully personal, waged among themselves and within themselves.
Just as the war is starting, a father in his late thirties, Graeme Forbes, joins the air force. Haunted by the photo of his brother, who was a pilot killed in the last war, he wants to make amends to himself and to his family by proving to be equal to his idealized sibling. He presumably has the stuff. He was after all a conventional athletic hero at his private school. Even though he's too old, alcoholic, and unstable to make a reliable pilot, he nevertheless possesses administrative skill that makes him an invaluable adjutant at the air base at Trenton. His son Matthew and his wife, inexplicably called Michael or "Mi", follow him from Toronto to make their lives nearer to him. He continues to drink but keeps it hidden to save his job. Carrying on an affair with a young widow, he spurns his wife and son. It's the boy who feels Graeme's hollowness the most. Findley asks, "Where had he gone, this man of infinite possibilities? Matthew had never known him-only the running shadow in the park, whose stride had shortened and whose eye had glazed." He finds a temporary father surrogate in his father's roommate, a Galahad-like pilot called Ivan who races a Harley-Davidson in off hours, once with Matthew on the back, on back roads. Like classical heroes, there's not much to Ivan beyond gallantry and good looks. He's there simply for narrative purpose: he's being fattened for the kill.
You Went Away betrays signs of quick composition. There are long stretches of one-sentence paragraphs interspersed with easy movie-like dialogue. While this sometimes gives an impression of thinness, it certainly best reveals the most compelling character of the novella, Mi (the mother), when she indulges herself in long conversations and correspondence with a close friend. Findley, who normally weaves very dense plots, is adept at the details and techniques of simple realism. Rather than building up the strange and even fetishistic compulsions of characters in his other novels, he makes "Mi" interesting in her ordinariness. She fusses over perfume, dresses, her shrinking household budget, and the loneliness of her son. She worries that she can't help liking her husband's girlfriend. Like many women of her generation, she knows that while she is tied to a failing man, she must somehow endure. In the end, everyone is as much tangled in unhappiness with each other as at the start. As for heroism, Findley offers an unconventional but decidedly sentimental image, "two white birds in the sky", to replace the clichés of war which have now fallen away.
If a reader comes to You Went Away with the expectancy of a typical Findleyian rollercoaster ride of surrealism, dark dreams and timescapes, compulsions and eccentricity, he will be disappointed. Findley has reined himself in so thoroughly that it's obvious he is doing it on purpose, probably to clarify some of the questions of his own life. You Went Away is the most autobiographical of his novels and, as he has confessed, that is for him the most difficult form of writing. This certainly implies a lack of narrative tidiness and completion. Suggesting a nightmarish patchwork image in Famous Last Words, Findley early on provides an explanation for the inconclusiveness of the story:
"There is nothing more than what is here. The remnants-not the remains. The pieces-not the whole. Not a puzzle, but a patchwork of unstitched lives."
John Ayre is the author of Northrop Frye: A Biography